College professor helps others find God amidst suffering

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

WESTON, Mass. — If it bleeds, it leads; the mantra of many a news station or newspaper that inundates the world with a seemingly never-ending list of tragedies and loss of life. As people see these senseless sorrows unfold on a daily basis, one cannot help but question: where is God in the midst of all this suffering and evil?

Dr. Ernie Collamati is currently a professor of religious studies at Regis College in Weston, and his choice in studies stemmed from his interest in trying to decipher some of life’s most often-asked questions: “I became more and more fascinated by what I later called, ‘the questions that never go away,’” said Collamati. “Those deep and abiding questions for human beings: where are we from? Where are we going? Does life make sense? Is there a God?”

Those questions led him through a few majors at Providence College until he selected humanities with a focus on the history of philosophy, then went to Notre Dame College to earn a Masters in Theology, “because I was just so captivated by the theological questions,” he said, and ultimately earned a Doctorate in Theology from the same school.

He taught in the Midwest for almost 20 years at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana before moving back to Massachusetts to teach at Regis College in 1987. Through it all he has never lost his desire to delve deep into religious and philosophical studies, and does 25-30 presentations annually on various theological topics, including Catholic identity and Catholic tradition, on a local and national scale. He credits the Church for allowing him to explore areas that had been off-limits to lay people until he was in college.

“A lot of it was because of what was happening to the Church,” he said. “Vatican Council II closed while I was a sophomore in college, and it all began to bubble up and there were new opportunities for lay people and the beginning of doctoral programs for lay people. The lay theologian wasn’t particularly known in the United States and I saw the possibilities and that’s the road I took.”

His recent presentation, “Where is God in the midst of suffering and evil?” at last year’s Faith Formation Ministry Convention sponsored by the Office of Faith Formation in Fall River struck a cord with many who attended the event.

“It’s a question many people have,” said Collamati. “It’s not simply a theoretical question, but a practical and personal question.”

The idea to explore such a question came from his love of reading. When Collamati read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Collamati said he may not have agreed with everything Kushner shared, but said he felt Kushner had stunning insight as Kushner dealt with his three-year-old son’s diagnosis of progeria (a rare genetic disorder that prematurely ages a child), and learned his son would only live until his early teens; he was faced with one of life’s most difficult questions: Why, God?

“He took on a very real question that started with a very real hurt,” said Dr. Collamati. “As a rabbi, the things he would say to people who were suffering, and now heard being said back to him, were completely unsatisfying, if not frustrating.”

As a person who has attended thousands of religious services, and not just Catholic services but also vigil services and wakes of others of different religions, said Collamati, “sometimes you hear from the pulpit or others trying to express sympathy, some language that — and I always precede my presentation that these things are said to comfort — but when you step back and examine what is actually said, you realize how problematic and disconcerting a number of those statements are.”

When a death or traumatic illness has occurred, the most heard statement from those looking to give comfort is “it’s God’s Will.” But just through the content of the language, what does that mean to the person hearing those words?

“What kind of God are you portraying?” asked Collamati.

Those people trying to offer comfort now seem to be placing blame on God, that God is the primary source for the pain. Everyone, from young to old, “has said that there’s a reason for everything,” said Collamati, “but if you’re a believer in God, then God must have a reason for sending this to me. What I try to disabuse people of thinking is, God doesn’t send any of this. Does illness exist? Yes. Are we mortal beings? Yes. Please don’t think that God, on any given day among millions of people, is giving a disease or life-threatening illness. Diseases have no conscience; they’re not self-directed. Innocent people suffer and sometimes some terrible people have very healthy lives.”

This way of thinking is a holdover from the ancient notion that God blesses those that are good, and punishes those who sin. That kind of thinking that there is a larger reason for what happened may give short-term comfort, but upon further reflection may feel, “What kind of God would do this?” and people may distant themselves from God because the image they have of God doesn’t work, and His image has become repugnant — something Collamati can relate to when, at the age of 18, he lost his father to pancreatic cancer.

“I felt that through my youth and as a teen-ager, that if I was extra good and devout — I even went to daily Masses — that life, particularly materialistically, would be spared, and for a good while it worked,” said Collamati. “It was comfortable and we never lacked for anything — life was good. Then we had a cluster of three serious health challenges, one was being the quick death of my father.”

As Collamati found himself taking theology classes at Providence College while simultaneously dealing with his grief, he said he would walk out of a class and say to himself there isn’t a God. 

Collamati battled this crisis of faith until he had an epiphany.

“I finally broke through and realized that it was not God that I was having a problem with,” said Collamati, “it was my image of God.”

He continued, “In gentle terms, just ask people to realize that God is present and ‘metaphorically and poetically’ speaking, God is sorrowing with you. If we have a crucified Lord as the centerpiece of our faith, then our God knows intimately through Jesus the reality of profound suffering”

Jesus did not have a wall around Him that prevented His pain, suffering, unjust treatment and death, so why would anyone feel — no matter how good they are — that God would shield them from all harm? In terms of Jesus’ humanity, said Collamati, His crucifixion happened when Jesus was human so more likely than not, bad things will happen to you. By humanizing Jesus, it helps people understand that Jesus is Divine and human, and that “the more you understand Jesus’ humanity, the more you see yourself in that story.”

When his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, Collamati found great inspiration in her approach: “She never asked the question, ‘Why me?” said Collamati, and when he asked her about it, she said that asking that question made no sense, stating, “‘I’m a woman and I’m vulnerable like any woman. The question for me, as a believer, is how God will guide me through this, whatever the outcome, and how He is present through this journey?’”

The best nugget of wisdom Collamati gleaned from Kushner’s book is something he often shares with his students: don’t spend a lot of your time asking why? Spend your energies answering the questions: what am I going to do about it, and how will I respond?

“It has to do with the question, how will I respond in grace to the suffering?” said Collamati, “and can I see grace coming to me, mainly through relationships with other people? God works through the human order through humans.”

Humans desire to make sense of life, the mind recoils at the idea that life doesn’t make sense, he said, but God is not testing you. Why would God need to test you when He already knows you? What would you say to a parent inflicting pain on their child to “test” them? You’d call child services on them. How can anyone find comfort in a Divine test?

Natural disasters and illnesses are not God’s punishment; God is not testing anyone. Sometimes there is no reason as to why a family of five was killed in a fire — please don’t try to suggest that God has a reason for doing this: “There are tragedies and God is not causing them,” said Collamati. 

The problems of evil stem from human free will, like the recent events in France, he said: “The gift of God’s free will — the gift to build the world, and the gift to destroy it.”

“I never exclude the miraculous, but think about how does God primarily work? He’s not pushing buttons and sending storms here, immediately healing a gash; God works through the creative life and the very world He brought into being,” said Collamati. “I hope that our faith and our relationship with God empowers us to respond as modeled through Jesus’ ministry. He saw evil, saw suffering and responded and showed us how God would respond to it.”

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts